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Thomas Ostermeier’s present-day production works against the text, which is exciting in the first half but makes the tragedy unmotivated and unlikely

Thomas Ostermeier’s modernised Miss Julie, now playing at the Lincoln Center Festival, begins with the decapitation of a chicken and ends with a presumptive human suicide. In between, a small dog is stabbed, several dancers gyrate themselves into likely sciatica, and just about everyone risks risk of salmonella poisoning. Despite all this violence – actual and potential – there’s little sense of threat in this abstracted version of August Strindberg’s play, adapted by Mikhail Durnenkov for Moscow’s Theatre of Nations.

Strindberg intended the play as a naturalist tragedy, an examination of how inheritance, temperament and environment lead an upper-class mademoiselle to bed her father’s valet on a sultry midsummer evening. Miss Julie, Strindberg tells us in the preface, is a “half-woman, man-hater”, tormented both by repression and by irrepressible urges. After shtupping a servant, she has no choice but to kill herself with his razor.

These broad outlines are visible in Ostermeier’s adaptation, but otherwise there’s a perverse desire (at times thrilling, at times frustrating, at times puerile) to work against the text. Durnenkov has reset the action in present-day Russia. Jean is now a chauffeur, his fiancee, Christine, is still a cook, and Julie is an oligarch’s dizzy daughter, traipsing around in skyscraper heels and ostentatious jewels. It’s midwinter here and falling snow blankets the perimeters of the revolving set, cooling down the action rather than ratcheting it up.

For the play’s first scene, the new setting works well enough. A camera focused on a cooktop shows every chop and sizzle as Christine (Julia Peresild) prepares chicken soup for the mistress’s dog. Soon Jean enters. They discuss the raucous party just outside the door and Julie’s outrageous behavior – she’s singing karaoke with a security guard. Then Julie arrives and the play begins to falter. Despite the livewire talents of Chulpan Khamatova as Julie, and Evgeny Moronov, the company’s artistic director, as Jean, there’s no heat or desperation to their coupling – it’s just a bad choice made tipsily. A silly, sexed-up rave scene, in which the party guests invade the kitchen and grind against its walls, seems to underscore this.

But it’s the morning after when the change of era and location really become a problem. However fixed the strictures of class are in contemporary Russia, it’s hard to accept that one vodka-soaked night with an underling would drive a woman to suicide. (Surely the sex can’t have been that bad?) Ostermeier’s understandable resistance to Strindberg’s florid symbolism and fascination with sexual deviance make the tragedy unmotivated and unlikely. And it doesn’t make Julie’s character any more coherent. Without an atmosphere of dread, the action becomes absurd, sometimes delightfully, as when Julie licks Jean’s eyeball or Jean shuts her in a freezer. When Jean rushes offstage to off her bitch with a cleaver (the curious incident of the dog in the daytime?), it’s a bracing bit of comic grotesquerie, which doesn’t really seem to be what either Ostermeier or Strindberg intended.